For the past two weeks, I have been in Thailand with my girlfriend and some other friends. Our time there gave me a great perspective on where I live now, Korea, and where I have spent my entire life, California. For this blog, I’d like to address them individually:
For perspective, in Thailand, a one hour massage costs somewhere between $3 and $7. One plate of delicious food at a restaurant? $1-$2. A 12 hour first class, VIP bus ride that includes snacks on the bus, reclining seat, and a meal at a restaurant halfway through the ride? $8. Another perspective, taxi drivers in Bangkok are notorious for trying to overcharge tourists for the rides. With this in mind, when we arrived in Bangkok I approached the taxis near the airport and asked them how much it would cost to go to our hotel. Each of them shrugged, or looked straight ahead and answered my questions with, “Yes, I know. Let’s go.” To which I responded, “I asked you how much!?” I then proceeded to the next taxi. Once we found one that seemed to speak English better, he told us he would use the meter (the cheapest and safest option) and so we got in. He then proceeded to drive us down a couple streets, make U-turns, and continue in another direction until finally he stopped and said, “What was the name of your hotel again?” I showed him again, and he acknowledged, and took us there in 3 minutes. After ALLLL of that effort he went to, the taxi ride ended up costing $1.50, and I’m sure he felt accomplished.
On the island of Koh Samui, we spent about 5 days relaxing on the island and doing some of the usual tourist things. One evening we stopped in a Lebanese place for dinner, and I got into a conversation with the owner. I asked him how he liked living on the island and how business was going. He said very bad, and he wanted go home to Lebanon soon because he wasn’t making enough money. When business was good, he was able to save about 1000-1500 Thai Baht per month. That translates to about $30 or $40 per MONTH.
Taking all this into account, I realized the true value of the life I was lucky enough to be born into, and furthermore, the lives of my students here in Korea. The simple fact that our money carries weight around the world makes it POSSIBLE for us to travel. People who live in Thailand have to work twice as hard, for 5 times as long, just to take a short trip to a neighboring country. In fact, is it safe to say that many of them will never get to travel for this reason alone. By no means am I saying that anyone is any better than anyone else here, I will get into that next, but what I am saying is that if you haven’t thought about how lucky you are lately, maybe its time to think again.
Many times throughout the trip, I found myself compulsively feeling sorry for some of the people I saw. Houses made from slabs of metal. Virtually no earthly possessions. Two legs their only means of transportation. And yet, at the same time I also noticed something else. Whenever I smiled at someone, they smiled back from ear to ear. And then it dawned upon me: less money, less problems. The more money we have, the more things we seem to have to worry about. Mortgages, credit cards, interest, investments, college funds, health insurance, fancy cars, the newest TV, how we’re going to afford our next… blah blah blah. For many people in Thailand, there’s no reason to even think about these things, and therefore no stress. The most stressful decision of the day night often be what time to go to sleep, or how much to charge someone for something. But even that, by comparison, provides very little stress. With this in mind, it is actually rather sad to see the western influence on their society. Shopping malls with manikens wearing polo shirts with their collars flipped up. TV commercials with Jennifer Lopez in some sexy outfit boasting the “sexiest fragrance in the world.” It is almost sickening to think that such influences are moving this culture further and further away from the simple, happy place at which they started. We think we have it figured out, but if life is about happiness, it is clear who’s really got things figured out.
Spicy in Thailand takes on a whole new meaning. I’m not talking about your lips burning for a while after you eat, I’m talking about your stomach hurts when the peppers touch it. And its not just hearty foods that get the spice either. It’s salads, with fruit, that are some of the spiciest. While I was in Thailand, the spicy food reminded me of Mexican food, which of course was my main diet in San Diego. Whenever I would ask for extra hot sauce, I often received skeptical looks from the restaurant owners. Then I thought of the first question pretty much every Korean person I meet asks me here, “Can you eat Korean food?” And what they mean is, “Can you handle the spiciness?” It is almost as if spicy food is a sort of right of passage for outsiders to be accepted into these cultures. Why is that?
I think that it is because much of these cultures I’ve mentioned are centered around their food. In Mexico, for instance, families often take time off of work to have a meal together, eat their fill, then go back to work. Holidays are almost as much about the food as they are family. In Korea, you don’t even order your own dish when you go to a restaurant. The group orders something and everyone shares. I have almost forgotten the feeling of looking over a menu and choosing something. In Thailand, the culture is very similar. I often saw families and groups of people eating together, sharing various plates of food… Collectivist. What these cultures all share is a collectivist mindset – the we before the me. And yet, everyone cannot just instantly be considered a part of this collective, so there must be some sort of initiation… I guess if you can’t handle the heat, you better stay out of the collective kitchen.
THE TAKEAWAY: To this point, I have traveled to twelve different countries, or cultures rather, and seen many difference ways of living life. This trip, however, gave me a very different feeling… a much deeper and richer appreciation for what I have here in Korea, and waiting for me at home. Every way of life has its positives and negatives, of course, but in the end, it is up to the person who is living that life to choose their way. What will you choose?